Comic Corner: Comic Book Week

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Comic Con used to be the standard for the comics community. It was a festival that was devoted exclusively to all things comic and nerdy. So whenever it happened itt was, in essence, what you could call a comic book week. But Comic Con is not what it used to be. Instead of just a celebration of all things comics, it is now a celebration of all things pop-culture. That’s not a bad thing, but it leaves comic books without a true dedicated week to call their own. Well, I think that I have found one. I think that this week, along with being Banned Books Week, could also be called Comic Book Week. Let me tell you why.

1. Banned Books Week is all about comic books!

Banned Books Week this year is emphasizing banned comic books and graphic novels. Both Captain Underpants and Bone are on the top ten banned books list, and they are both graphic novels. And trust me, there are plenty more banned graphic novels out there that you should definitely be reading. While you’re out there getting one of those banned books at your favorite comic shop why don’t you…

2. Celebrate National Comic Book Day!

Yup. Today, September 25th is National Comic Book Day. It’s not the same as Free Comic Book Day, but there are still some deals out there for you can grab up. One of the better deals out there is ComiXology, who is offering up 25 different titles for free! I think I may just pick up a couple, or 25, of those titles myself.

3. Panels.net will be launching next week

Okay, it’s not technically within what I am calling Comic Book Week, but a pretty cool website called Panel.net is launching on October 1st. It has a pretty simple tagline–read comics, be happy. And, it is self described as, “A community celebrating comics, the people who make them, and the people who love them.” I’m pretty interested in what they have to offer, and I’m keeping an eye on them. If you want to keep an eye on them too, you can sign up here.

 

The Black Box

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J.J.'s Mystery Box

J.J.’s Mystery Box

There’s a black box. Inside this box is a mystery. It’s contents are unknowable. You can put something inside the box, or many somethings, and the box, via unknown means, produces something else. How it works, why it works, and all manner of technical questions are fundamentally unanswerable. It just works.

The Black Box is a trope in fiction. There’s the Tesseract (and other Infinity Stones) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an object of immense power the characters do not understand. There’s the Source Code in Source Code. The Machine in Contact. There’s the magic box in LOST (kind of—more on this one below). The trope is a bit like a Deus Ex Machina* meets a Macguffin—the audience does not understand it, and most of the time the characters don’t either, but it is what wills the plot forward.

Got unknown alien technology? Black Box. Hyperspace drive? Black Box. Zombie virus? Depends on the show/book/movie, but yeah. Magic spell? Might be a stretch, but I’d put it under the black box umbrella. To use a Potter example, a witch may say a magic word, a wand may translate the word/gesture/intent, and out pops the result of a spell. How does it work? Rowling never explains, because she doesn’t have to. It is irrelevant, which can be a feature of a Black Box.

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn't been found

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn’t been found

This is a common trope, especially scifi, but it is also a phenomenon in the real world. Radiolab did an episode about it a while back, with three fascinating examples. The one I liked the best was the Piddingtons. I wholly recommend listening to the show, but here’s a brief breakdown of the story:

The Piddingtons were a married couple who had a popular radio program in the 50’s. They performed feats of telepathic prowess, the husband ‘communicating’ with his wife over some distance, to some stunt location, where she would repeat some phrase verbatim after divining it out via psychic waves. In short, they were doing a trick, the same thing a David Blaine or Cris Angel do today. Their job was to present something that the audience, no matter how determined, could not figure out. Like any magic trick, it was a misdirection. They forced you to focus on one aspect of the trick, trying to figure out the code or whatever, when the truth was much more mundane.

That’s the beauty (and the danger) of magic acts. The truth is, it’s a trick. No one bends the laws of physics. There’s no such thing as telepathy, levitation, talking to the dead, and so on. The good ones (see: Penn and Teller and The Amazing Randi) do not obscure this fact. They openly admit to lying. They are entertaining because they utilize a black box, which is usually their own minds. They know the truth, they know how the trick works, and they use that knowledge to misdirect you. It isn’t what’s inside the box, or what it does that matters, but the box itself is the draw, the thing that creates wonder and excitement.

The Prestige is one of my favorite films. A recurring theme of the film is the secret behind magic tricks, and whether or not the secret should be known. Radiolab, a show that is about science and getting to the bottom of mysteries, presents you a choice. On their website is a clip from Penn Jillette, in which he explains how the Piddingtons probably did their trick. You, the audience, are presented with the challenge: look inside the black box, or let the mystery remain. You might drive yourself nuts trying to figure out the secret, but if you take a step back and think about the entire situation, you may discover that the entertainment isn’t about what the secret is, but about how it affects you.

This, I think, is the key to speculative fiction. Every piece of fantasy, scifi, and lots of horror, requires a black box of sorts. It may not be a literal object or process in the story, but a more meta assumption that the rules expressed in the story just work, and that you don’t need to know how. The Force has an input—the focus and intent of the Jedi or Sith. It has a result, levitation, premonition, lightning, etc. How does it work? We don’t need to know. It is better without knowing.

A black box in science is what drives careers. A black box in fiction can make—or break—a story. But there’s another black box, that may never see the light of day, and that is the human mind.

A few years ago, J.J. Abrams did a TED Talk. In it, he described a mystery box he got as a child. He never opened the box, instead cherishing the mystery. It became a metaphor for the creative process. It even appeared in an episode of LOST, where Ben tells John Locke about a ‘magic box’ on the island that can produce whatever you want. John takes it a little too literally, and Ben has to remind him it’s a metaphor. To me, the black box is a perfect metaphor for that weird, nebulous thing we called inspiration.

Where do ideas come from? We can sort of trace their roots. The musician Josh Ritter once described it like a monster you must feed constantly.You read/listen to/watch whatever the monster inside decides it wants you to absorb, and once in a while it will regurgitate something useful, artistic, profound. In classical mythology, the Muses also fit the bill.

This is the ultimate Black Box. How do my story ideas become? How, even, do my thoughts become? I know I see and hear stuff, and I produce things for others to see and hear, but I don’t really know how it happens (this is different from learning the craft of writing). There’s a lot out there about philosophy of mind, cognition, archetypes and the collective unconscious, and all that jazz, but it has only ever told me half-truths, patterns, and how to recognize patterns. How do ideas happen? I don’t know. I’m not sure I need or want to know.

We can accept a black box in fiction because we ourselves are a black box. We are the trope, and while it may puzzle most of us for a while, if we take a step back, we find it isn’t how it works that ultimately matters, just that it works.


 

cover3I know what inspires me in my current series, Gone To Wonder: theme parks, steampunk, coming-of-age stories, new technology, and crazy adventures. I don’t know how they Check out the first episode in the series, Absent Hero, available for Kindle.

Always Ask What if

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There is a large percentage of Scotland, somewhere around 45 percent, wondering today, what if? Wondering what may have happened if another 6 percent of their countrymen could have voted with them. There is a large portion of the world who wondering what may have been, too. Flanders, Catalonia, the Basques, Quebec, all wondering if the Scottish bid was in the affirmative, whether or not they, too, would be allowed to pursue their own independence.

Most of them will allow these thoughts of what if to fade into the background. They will perhaps come the front of the mind every once in a while, but they will quickly fade away as real life takes back over. There are a group of people who will not let the what ifs go away.

I am a part of that group. I am one of those who looks at the what ifs and lets them run wild. Lets them run so fast and far that they entangle all of my thoughts. It creates story ideas that are sometimes fulfilled, sometimes temporarily put aside, sometimes completely abandoned.

Asking what if creates ideas like a man dealing with a breakup before the end of the world. It spawns ideas like a girl inside a virtual theme park attempting to save the digital world. Ideas like a kid who can travel though time with a toaster. Or stories like what will the world be like after global warming destroys the globe.

Creators of great and small works alike ask “what if.” And then they take that question as far as they can get it, allowing it to shift in form until it becomes a story that they feel is worth telling.

So, keep asking what if. Ask it as many times as possible. Asking what if is the only way that the Scottish referendum got floated in the first place. It’s the only way that great events happen. It’s the only way that great stories get told. And in the end, asking what if is the only way that anything every changes.

***

I am a fan of history and absorber of all things news. I am a writer of books and blogs, and an enjoyer of all things pop culture. There is more about my that I can not currently think of. I will answer any question via email bearded bards at gmail.com, or in the comments below. If your question is, “Can I get your book for free?” My answer is yes, just send me an email. If you would rather pay for the book on Amazon, the link is below.

Tim and the Breakup of Impending Doom.

 

 

 

Copy Cats Need Not Apply

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Each semester I would inevitably have a teacher who would espouse to the class how they always had one person who plagiarized. One person who thought that they could get away with copying their paper and pass it off as their own. There was an underlying threat involved–the teacher could and would find all plagiarists in their class, so don’t even try. The reality was something different. Most teachers are far too overwhelmed by the amount of work that they have to actually identify any plagiarism. Most cases of plagiarism in the academic setting will go under the radar. Unless the plagiarism is completely evident (as in, the writing level is far exceeding that which the student has previously written), or the teacher has somehow already read what the student is putting forward as their own, the plagiarism will go unnoticed (unless the teacher is using a service like Turnitin.com, which is another blog post entirely).

That doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing plagiarism. I’m just saying that it is incredibly easy to do. There are plenty of instances of professors and journalist plagiarizing work. Most of the time it’s for one of two reasons–they are too overwhelmed with other projects in order to take the time to make their own original content, or they just don’t want to make their own original content. Any way you cut it, those who plagiarize either believe whole heartedly that they will not get caught or hope beyond hope that they will not get caught.

Being writers on the internet, and being self-published authors, Zach and I have to be especially aware of plagiarism. Not only do we have to be diligent ourselves to not take credit for what is not our, but we also need to make sure that nothing that is ours has been appropriated by someone else. The internet, with all of its glorious achievements, has also made plagiarism incredibly easy to do–and incredibly easy to spot.

Here are a few cautionary tales of plagiarism.

1. If you get caught, don’t be a jerk about it

Plagiarism Today, a great site about all things copyright and content ownership, has a great post about a lurid tale of plagiarism in the University setting. The story is a flip on the usual, as a professor instead of a student is the one who was accused of plagiarism. His come-back? Attempt to completely dismantle the life of the guy who found him out. The story is worth a read and definitely gives a good moral: if you get caught for plagiarism, go quietly into the night.

2. There are a lot of forms of plagiarism

One thing that I learned in my time interning at a writing center is that plagiarism comes in a lot of different forms. Ed Tech Digest does a nice little breakdown on the different forms of plagiarism in what is called, “The Plagiarism Spectrum.” I would recommend anyone who is questioning whether or not what they are doing is plagiarism to check out this post. Not only does it describe the different forms of plagiarism, but it breaks them down into easily identifiable categories. According to the article, “The Plagiarism Spectrum was developed specifically to help students better grasp what plagiarism looks like in practice.” Personally, I think that it can be used by anyone to great affect.

3. Anyone can plagiarize, and anyone can get caught

Our Bad Media, an anonymous group of two bloggers/twitter users (@blippoblappo & @crushingbort) put up a post outlining numerous episodes of plagiarism by author and CNN host Fareed Zakaria. While the whole incident has not gotten nearly the traction that it should, there are some great dissections of the whole mess. One in particular that I think is well worth reading is a post by Steve Buttry, where he gives a great journalist perspective on why what Zakaria did is plagiarism in every sense of the word.

One more place plagiarism is rampant is in the music industry. And as this Westword article points out, it’s usually identified pretty quickly.

***

I am a fan of history and absorber of all things news. I am a writer of books and blogs, and an enjoyer of all things pop culture. There is more about my that I can not currently think of. I will answer any question via email bearded bards at gmail.com, or in the comments below. If your question is, “Can I get your book for free?” My answer is yes, just send me an email. If you would rather pay for the book on Amazon, the link is below.

Tim and the Breakup of Impending Doom.

Music (and Pictures) To Write To: All Scotland Edition

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If my math is correct, then as I post this it is a little less than 18 hours until the calendar flips over on September 18th, 2014 in Scotland, otherwise known as the date of the Independence Referendum.

I know exactly where I was one year ago, because I was there, in Scotland. To be specific, on the 18th of September, I woke up in the village of Kenmore, had lunch in Pitlochry, zipped by the Cairngorms, and ate dinner beside the River Ness. It was a helluva trip, one that will leave a lasting impact on myself and by proxy my writing for years to come.

So to mark the occasion, I thought I’d do a Scotland-themed MtWt. And then I thought I’d add some pictures. And then I realized I wouldn’t want to share just one song, so I’m going to go freaking nuts and share a bunch. And also pictures (taken by me, so excuse any lapse in quality).

First up, a classic, Loch Lomond as performed by Scottish folk legends The Corries

Loch Lomond, copyright Z.T. Burian

Loch Lomond

Next, one of my favorite artists, who almost always sings in a language I can’t understand but I adore anyways, Julie Fowlis. This video has a nice intro, and it’s a live performance. With a baby. Just watch it.

The Isle of Mull from Iona

The Isle of Mull from Iona

On to one of my favorite bands, not just from Scotland but from anywhere, Frightened Rabbit. I have had their album Midnight Organ Fight on repeat some days, and still can’t get enough of it.

Holyrood

Holyrood

For something completely different, here’s my favorite Mogwai tune.

And last, because I can’t resist, and because I absolutely love this song (not ironically), The Proclaimers.

Kenmore in the morning

Kenmore in the morning

Edinburgh in the evening

Edinburgh in the evening

Collies!

Collies!

My sister and me and Edinburgh Castle

My sister and me and Edinburgh Castle

I have thousands more pictures (not hyperbole), but I’m wearing out my welcome I think. Scotland has influenced my writing through the music above, and the places I visited. Old Town Edinburgh was my model for Ganton in Gone To Wonder. Celtic and gaelic imagery abounds in my work. But I could never do the place justice, in pictures or words.

I’m American, so what goes down the 18th is none of my damn business. No matter the result, I hope Scotland becomes an even more impressive place, and I wish the people there success. If you’ve never been there, I hope you visit someday. You might just be inspired to write.

Peyton Manning, Regression, and Redemption

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There is a legend. A man, young and strong, comes to a kingdom in need of help. This man overcomes trials, fights off beasts, and eventually comes away with an ultimate prize. The man, after completing his tasks, rests for a time. He ages, it seems as though he will not be able to come back. But he does come back. He comes back and once again undertakes the road of trials, so that he may once again fight a beast, once again undertaking a journey fraught with peril. That man is, of course, Peyton Manning.

Beowulf would fit the mold, too. But, hey, that’s old and boring. Plus, Manning throws footballs, avoids tackles, and is the hero to millions of people. Plus—he did an awesome SNL commercial for United Way.

Beowulf on the other hand only ever killed a Grendal and Grendal’s mother, and a dragon. Boring.

Peyton Manning was a force to reckon with in the NFL in the first incarnation of his Hero’s Journey. He passed his road of trials, fought against and lost to the evil Tom Brady, and eventually was able to gain his boon and come back to the promised land of Indiana. Manning’s own story is much like that of Beowulf—who came to a kingdom as a rookie knight, defeated a beast, saved the kingdom, and got his own boon in the way of fame, fortune, and kingship.

Both could have rested at that point. Both had completed the Hero’s Journey. Both were in their promised land and could have retired (Manning) and died (Beowulf) in complete piece.

But neither did.

Peyton, after injury, came back to the NFL. And Beowulf, after old age overtook him, came back to slay another beast. I’m of course not conflating one of the most prolific figures in history with Beowulf (see what I did there?). The two have all the differences in the world. But they do have one thing very much in common—regression and redemption within the Hero’s Journey.

Regression and Redemption

Everyone regresses. It’s a basic fact that there will be highs and lows throughout our lifespan. Everyone goes through the ups and downs of repeated trips through the Hero’s Journey. There are plenty of examples of regression and redemption throughout literature, cinema, television, and everyday life. Here are just a few:

TV Procedurals — Each week the members of the CSI team, or New York’s finest, must solve a new crime. They go through every step of the Hero’s Journey, the initial call, the trials, the boon, and the return (a simplified version of the Journey, but one that still hits all the major points). Every week, though, they must solve a new crime or overcome a new challenge and repeat the Hero’s Journey. Despite completing the quest, they must regress back to square one and start all over again.

The Hunger Games — In every incarnation of the Hunger Games, Katniss must overcome what amounts to the same obstacle. In each book (and movie) she must overcome some form of the arena. In each part she gets called into the arena, overcomes the trials, and comes away with the boon of victory. Just because she has completed an arena, though, doesn’t mean that she is done. In each episode she must start at square one of the Hero’s Journey before she can start on the next arena.

The Mighty Ducks — This is perhaps my favorite version of regression and redemption. Each film, the team must come together and go through their trials in order to win the big championship. And at the end of each film they are able to win said championship. They celebrate in how far they have come and the skill at which they play the game. However, at the start of each film they basically start over. Even though they have gone through all the cycles of the Hero’s Journey and come out the other side as champions, at the start of the next film they start playing hockey like they have never done so before. It’s the perfect example of regressing to zero and having to redeem yourself through the Hero’s Journey.

Repeating the Journey

We all go through multiple Hero’s Journeys everyday. Almost every task we take on could be fit into the Hero’s Journey frame work. Let’s take this one from myself yesterday. Yesterday I wanted to go find a little device that I needed in order to make my own TV antenna. In my truncated form of the Hero’s Journey I, 1) Got the call, figured out that I needed this part in order to make the antenna, 2) Went through my road of trials, I had to go to multiple stores in order to get the part that I needed, and 3) Received my boon, got the piece that I needed, and then 3) returned, I went home to celebrate in my victory.

Nearly every micro and macro task that we undertake (micro–getting an antenna, macro–birth, life, death) can fit into the Hero’s Journey framework. But nearly every task that we undertake is pretty boring. Sure, there are some that are more interesting or involved than others, but most of the things that we do which fit into the Hero’s Journey don’t quite feel like they fit into the Hero’s Journey. And the majority of the time when we start on a new Hero’s Journey it feels like we are starting from square one.

The point I want to get across is this: the Hero’s Journey can repeat and be repeated multiple times. It happens to us everyday, it happens to the Mighty Ducks in every one of their movies. In fact, most of the time when we finish a Hero’s Journey, a new one begins right afterwards. The fact that Peyton Manning is currently going through a second incarnation of the Hero’s Journey, or that Beowulf went through the journey twice in his epic, should come as no surprise.

How Many Boons for Peyton Manning?

Peyton Manning With his Boon http://www.concordmonitor.com

There is a question over whether Beowulf is able to gain a second boon. Is death a boon? Is defeating the dragon a boon? Personally, I think he does. I think that in defeating the dragon and dying as a king who was able to protect his people that he is able to gain yet another boon. Effectively, he is able to complete two distinct journeys during his epic.

The question is still out there for Peyton Manning.

All of us and the charters that we view and read about can fail during the Hero’s Journey. We can easily refuse the call and not go on the journey at all, we can fail at our trials, we can fail upon attempting to get our final boon.

Manning’s ultimate fate still waits for him. He has successfully completed the Hero’s Journey once, but that does not mean that he will successfully complete it again. He may fail, he may not be able to win a second super bowl, he may retire and find that the boon that is his second Lombardi trophy eludes him.

Of course, he will have other attempts at the Hero’s Journey. Most of those attempts will not be broadcast over national television. In all probability, he will be able to successfully complete the majority of his journeys without any difficulty at all. But will those really matter as much as this current journey that he is undertaking?

The Everyday Journey

I think all that really differentiates you or me from a person like Peyton Manning or Beowulf is the amount of people who care. Manning’s return to the NFL was a long scrutinized endeavor, Beowulf is a story which is studied in literature classes across the globe, and millions of people have paid to watch The Hunger Games.

Like I said above, we all go through the Hero’s Journey everyday. The biggest question you have to ask is whether or not your journey is really all that important? Sure, we are all the center of our own universes, but is what we are doing really as big a deal as we make it out to be? Is making sure that you get to the post office before it closes really all that important in the big scheme of things? Do other people care if you get to the post office or not?

I’m not sure. But there is something that we can relate to with Peyton Manning and Beowulf. We can see people who are taking on the call of the Hero’s Journey despite everything that is fighting against them. Despite being injured and aged they still accept the call. The Might Ducks, despite not quite being all that great at hockey anymore (for some reason) still take on the call.

It’s an inspiration for any of us. If we look at the tasks that we undertake as if they are all Hero’s Journeys, just like those that Manning or Beowulf are taking on, it become easier for us to accept that call. We may feel that we have regressed, that we may not be able to undertake and complete the task ahead, but if Manning can do it even after a neck injury, why not us?